Cane Corsos Take a Straw Poll
Standards are, by definition, about exclusion. As breeds evolve and solidify, they begin to tighten the noose of type.
And, sometimes, the written standard becomes the order of execution for certain traits, whether it’s a particular ear carriage or size or color – usually something connected to another breed that was introduced in the foundation period. Years or decades later, these purged characteristics can resurface, perplexing breeders and prompting some fanciers to ask why they were excluded in the first place.
Enter the “straw” Cane Corso.
These cream-colored dogs, which can have either black or gray pigment, are marketed as “rare” by some breeders, who charge as much as $5,000 for them. As this color turns up unbidden and unexpected in whelping boxes –usually the result of a linebreeding – and awareness of it increases, straw-colored Corsos have also appeared in the show ring in recent years – on this side of the Atlantic, at least.
Straw-colored Cane Coro puppy. Courtesy of Maxima Lux kennel, Serbia.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a spectrum of opinion on straw Cane Corsos among breeders, with some maintaining it is simply an ultra-light shade of fawn, and others arguing that it is an unacceptable deviation from the standard.
What seems generally accepted is that the straw Corso is not the result of some very recent cross, but rather is a throwback to an historical color possibly resulting from crossbreeding with the Maremma or Abruzzese Sheepdog, Italy’s answer to the Kuvasz of Hungary or the Great Pyrenees of France. Whatever its provenance, this light-hued Cane Corso – called the cane da pagliaio, which means the “straw-stack dog” – was said to be prized among the farmers of Italy’s meridionale.
Head study of a purebred Maremma Sheepdog, also referred to as the Maremmano or Abruzzese Sheepdog, which is believed to give the straw Cane Corso its distinctive color.
The result of a Cane Corso/Maremma cross, 1980s. These dogs were sometimes called mezzo, or "half," Corso. Photo courtesy Shauna DeMoss.
“The straw stack was a functional unit of the farm in that, during winter, it worked as the shelter of all animals, cats and dogs included,” wrote Dr. Flavio Bruno in Il Cane Corso, his 1994 book on the breed. “The preferred color of this dog was straw like, because old people thought that the character of a straw-colored dog was ‘flammable’ like the straw.”
Today, however, straw is not mentioned in any of the world’s Cane Corso standards, all of which agree on the acceptable modern colors: black; all shades of gray; all shades of fawn (which can also appear in a dilute version, called formentino among fanciers), and red. The brindle pattern is permitted on all these colors, though obviously on black dogs the stripes are not visible. Additionally, the AKC standard notes that solid fawn and red dogs have a mask that is black in fawn dogs and gray in formentino dogs. (Because formentini are dilutes, they are genetically incapable of producing black pigment.)
The only disqualifying color in the AKC standard is for tan points, as commonly seen in Rottweilers or Dobermans. There is no disqualification for a color not otherwise described in the standard.
In a post on the Cane Corso Association of America website written by Robyn Salisbury, straw is specifically mentioned among “non-standard” coat colors such as chocolate, liver and Isabella fawn (dilute liver), describing it as “a light yellow or cream color with no mask and the nose is most often a faded brown color or black.”
Though they are sometimes marketed as “white” Cane Corsos, the straw dogs are not pure white. As a result, they do not have any of the health issues, such as deafness, often associated with albinism, or lack of pigment.
Straw Cane Corsos may appear white, but they are not. Their true color is readily apparent against a backdrop of snow. Photo courtesy Lynn Herring.
Nonetheless, “in my opinion, I think it’s accurate to say straw is a controversial color,” says respected Cane Corso judge Massimo Inzoli of Sicily, who does not consider straw to be a true fawn. “The color existed in the breed, just like the melogna, or badger color, which comes from the Neapolitan Mastiff. Every once in a while, some recessive gene can turn up: I remember the controversy in Brazil over a chocolate-colored Cane Corso that was entered in the champion class!”
A couple of years ago, when Marcos Reta of Campione Cane Corsos in Miami bred a litter out of two brindle parents, he was surprised to find that several of the nine puppies were straw colored. Rather than guess about their genetic makeup, he submitted a DNA sample to a genetics laboratory.
The result? The puppies were homozygous for the “e” mutation, which suppresses black pigment in the coat and only allows for the production yellow pigment. In other words, the puppies were not genetically fawn, but rather had the same color genetics as a yellow Labrador Retriever. (In other breeds, such as the Irish Setter, the “e/e” genotype expresses differently, producing a red coat color.)
DNA results on straw-colored Cane Corso. Even though the dog is "sable/fawn" at the A locus, the "yellow/red" mutation at the E locus knocks out and overrides any other coat color that may be genetically present. Dogs of this "e/e" genotype cannot have a mask, as this document illustrates. Courtesy Marcos Reta.
In order to be yellow, or straw, a Corso must have two copies of this recessive gene. Dogs with only one copy will not be straw, but as carriers they can produce the color if bred to another standard-colored dog that carries it.
Reta placed all the puppies as pets but for one, a bitch he kept and has since bred; she did not produce any straw puppies, though all the offspring are carriers and could produce straw if bred to other carriers.
While Reta says he does not breed for color, he’s perplexed that straw Corsos would be an issue in a breed that started off with such a diverse palette. “The Corso is reconstructed from so many other breeds, why not include a dog that has been part of it for hundreds of years?” he asks rhetorically.
“The straw color was very highly valued before the standard was written,” agrees Zeljko Tasic of Maxima Lux Kennel in Belgrade, Serbia. “Those dogs had excellent prey drive, and from my experience that is correct. And I must mention that all of the 10 to 12 straw pups I have produced are very typey, with beautiful heads.”
Straw Cane Corso (forefront) compared to a normally colored formentino, or fawn dilute. Photo courtesy Lynn Herring.
Not all breeders who produce straw feel the same way. Slobodan Grujic of Kennel Spunk Gang in Vojka, Serbia, who unexpectedly produced straw puppies about five years ago, says he does not show or intentionally breed the color because he does not consider it to be in standard.
“It’s well known what colors are acceptable according to the standard, and each light-colored dog has to have a black or gray mask on the muzzle,” he explains. “It’s very rare that you have the straw color with a black mask, and there are more straw dogs without the mask. They can’t be shown as they don’t have the required black mask or color on the muzzle.”
Indeed, any Internet search for straw-colored Corsos will yield photographs of dogs with either black or gray noses that may have color on the front of their muzzles, but don’t have a complete mask.
And that’s because they can’t.
Dr. Sheila M. Schmutz, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada, who specializes in canine coat colors, notes that it is genetically impossible for a dog of any breed with the e/e genotype to have a mask. While she notes that true fawn dogs do not always have masks, “reddish e/e dogs never have a single black hair on them – not even a whisker.”
Light fawn Bullmastiff. Note the black on the muzzle (this much masking would be incorrect for a Corso, as it should never go up over the eyes), ears and bibbling.
Schmutz stresses that this absence of black applies only to the fur: Dogs that are e/e can have black pigment (or gray, if they are formentini) on their noses, lips and skin. Indeed, in straw dogs, color on the muzzle derives from the skin or mucous membranes, not the fur itself, which is why it is usually present on the front of the muzzle but not on the sides. And it is likely this absence of black fur that causes fanciers to do a double take: While a true fawn Bullmastiff, for example, can be such a light biscuit tone as to be almost as blond as many straw Corsos, the presence of total black on the ears and muzzle, and often grizzling on the neck, give it a very different visual impression.
Judges who are confused about whether they have a straw Cane Corso in the ring cannot, however, just assume that they can identify the color based on the absence of a mask. As Dr. Schmutz points out, true fawns can also lack masking. And although the many Cane Corso judges, particularly in Europe, are not inclined to point to fawn or red dogs that lack masking, that fault is arguably far less serious than an out-of-standard color.
So how does a conscientious breeder, buyer or judge tell the difference?
Identifying a straw coat may come down to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of hard-core pornography: I know it when I see it. For anyone familiar with the breed, the straw coat’s peculiar cast is evident, but even experienced breeders have difficulty putting into words what they consider an obviously incorrect coat color.
“It’s very hard to describe,” agrees Zoe DeVita of Italica Terrae Cane Corsos in Westchester County, New York, who has produced two straw puppies in a linebreeding with a gray-brindle sire who has never produced fawn. She placed both as pets. “It’s brighter, it’s lighter, and it has kind of an icy, cool tone to it,” she says of the straw color. “It has different shades we don’t normally see in a regular fawn dog. It's like a ghost.”
Straw Cane Corso (left) compared to a true fawn. Note the difference in masking. Courtesy Tara Cain.
Like Corsos of all colors, straw dogs vary in quality. Some are very typey, with exquisite heads; others, not so much. In other words, there do not seem to be any other untypical qualities that consistently travel with the color.
Another tip-off that a dog is fawn and not straw is the presence of black hair anywhere in the coat – including the whiskers and ticking on the body. Because American Corsos are often cropped and docked, black hairs that often naturally appear on the ear flaps and end of tail are obviously not present. DeVita also notes that some fawn and formentino dogs can have a carbon-color-like cast over the head and body, which is different from ticking, and is black in fawn dogs and gray in formentini. (See Mike Ertaskiran's excellent primer on Cane Corso color for an example of this, which the Italians call carbonara.)
In the end, DeVita, who is a board member and AKC delegate of the Cane Corso Association of America and a member of the committee currently exploring a revision of the AKC standard, thinks a lot of breeders are simply uneducated about the color genetics in the breed, and need to come to terms with the fact that straw is neither true fawn nor its dilute, formentino.
“What’s the big deal? It’s a throwback,” she concludes matter-of-factly. “Just don’t put it in the ring, show it or breed it.”